August 14, 2021 – Tenth Sunday after Pentecost – Luke 12:49-56

I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”  That’s what Jesus said.  Anyone wishing maybe they had stayed home this morning?  Yeah, it’s, um, a difficult text, to say the least.

First, let me say a word about the fire that Jesus wants to kindle:  I don’t believe it’s the fire of a quick temper, nor do I believe it’s some divine scorched earth policy that Jesus is carrying out.  You may remember from Luke 9, which we heard earlier this summer, that when the disciples wanted to call down fire from heaven to punish less-than-hospitable Samaritans, Jesus rebuked them for their angry, destructive bent.  So I think we can rule out that Jesus is talking here about retribution.  My guess is that the fire Jesus is talking about kindling is more like the fire in Luke 3, where we hear John the Baptist preaching about repentance, about cutting down the trees that don’t bear good fruit and throwing them into the fire.  I know, that sounds scary, too, because let’s face it, we’ve all had times when we haven’t borne a lot of good fruit.  Still,  Luke calls John the Baptist’s message “good news.”  Why?  Because fire burns up what is useless and makes way for new growth.

I can’t think about fire making new growth possible without thinking about the sequoia tree.  Tricia and I took a trip to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in California a few years ago.  And you’ve got to know – there is almost nothing on earth that I am more in awe of than the sequoia tree.  First, they are old.  The oldest is called the General Grant Tree and it’s 3,200 years old.  Let me put that in biblical perspective for you:  Scholars say that King David was born around 1000 years before Christ.  That means the General Grant Tree was around when King David walked the earth.  And the sequoias are big.  They are the largest organism ever to inhabit the earth.  The General Grant Tree is 310 feet tall.  Again, let me put that in perspective – that’s taller than the clock tower in downtown Springfield.  And they’re not just tall – they’re wide, too.  By my rough calculation, the width of this nave is just about the diameter of the General Grant tree.  These trees are simply amazing, and not just because of their age and size.  They are also remarkably adapted to their environment.  It is very hot and dry in the Sierra Nevada, where these trees live, and fires are not infrequent.  But the sequoia tree will survive all but the most devastating of fires because its bark is, at places, two feet thick, insulating the tree and protecting it.  It’s not that they don’t sustain some damage when wildfires move through.  We saw many trees with scars, with blackened sections of bark, but which continued to thrive.  Their bark is their superpower.  The other amazing adaptation of the sequoia tree is its pine cones.  They remain attached to their stems, sealed shut high up in the canopy, without opening to disburse their seeds for up to 20 years.  But, the heat of a fire at the base of these giant trees, rises and causes the cones to open.  This is by design.  Were the seeds in the cones to be released under normal circumstances, meaning when there was no fire on the ground below, very few if any of the resulting seedlings would survive because they would be competing with other vegetation for light and water.  But a fire clears out that undergrowth, giving the little seeds a chance at life.  And not only that, the mineral soil which is left behind after a fire is the perfect soil for the seedlings to germinate.  Sequoias need fire.

Even intentionally set fires – called prescribed burns – help to protect the sequoias.  According to a news article published in the Christian Science Monitor last month, small, intentionally lit fires over the last 50 years actually protected a grove of sequoias from the Washburn Fire which burned in Yosemite National Park last month.  According to the Monitor, “Wildfire is a growing scourge across the American landscape.  In California and other Western states, a combination of prolonged drought and climate change have heightened the risk of uncontrollable and sometimes deadly fires.  But it’s a problem in many other places. …  Fire experts, land managers, government agencies, and even the public have increasingly embraced the idea that the best defense against wildfires is regular burning.  They say low-intensity, carefully managed fires can thin overgrown forests and reduce the buildup of fuels like pine needles, dead grass, fallen trees, and thick brush that produce more intense and destructive fires.”[1]

With these images in my mind, I hear Jesus’ words differently.  “I came to bring fire to the earth.”  The best defense against a destructive wildfire of sin is regular burning.  We need Jesus to come and do a prescribed burn in us – to burn away all the undergrowth in our lives that could easily burn out of control with destructive results.  The unkind thoughts that we tell ourselves don’t hurt anybody because they’re just our private thoughts, but that infect our attitudes and prevent us from loving the way we should – Jesus, please burn those thoughts away.  The tendency to hold on tightly to our money because we tell ourselves that we have to save everything we have to take care of ourselves – which not only hurts others who could benefit from our generosity but also hurts us because it keeps us from trusting God – Jesus, please burn that tendency away.  The undercurrent of guilt that constantly pulls at us because we feel we’re not good enough or loving enough or worthy enough that can so easily turn us away from the gift of forgiveness – Jesus, please burn that guilt away.  What is it in you that Jesus needs to burn away?

“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” said Jesus.  How I wish it were already kindled . . . there is urgency in his words.  He wants to get about the work for which he came – burning away what is useless or old or holds us back in order to bring new life and new energy and new creativity and new beginnings and new love and new justice for the world.   But let me be brutally honest – the fire will not be painless.  The scars that we saw in some of the giant sequoias were hard to look at.  Yes, the trees survived those fires.  And yes, the fires helped the whole grove to thrive.  But the scars let us know that, in the burning, there was a cost.  Just as it will cost us to change our habits of consumption to protect our planet.  Just as it will cost us who are white to recognize our privilege and relinquish our power so that our siblings of color may rise.  Just as it will cost us to live more simply and generously so that others may simply enjoy the abundance God so generously provides.  The fire that Jesus came to kindle will cost us.  Our sacrifices may be painful.  But like the giant sequoia, who has the superpower of protective bark, we, too, have a superpower which will allow us to survive – and our community to thrive:  and that superpower is Jesus.  For the scars which he bears on his hands and his feet let us know that he bore the biggest cost – and in so doing, ensured our survival, both in this world and the next.

[1] [1] https://www.csmonitor.com/Environment/2022/0714/Standing-strong-Prescribed-burns-aid-sequoias-in-surviving-wildfire#:~:text=Giant%20sequoias%20in%20Yosemite%20National,methods%20to%20help%20prevent%20wildfires.

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